SAN DIEGO -- The Green Bay Packers returned two interceptions for touchdowns Sunday. Their quarterback produced his most efficient game of a marvelous season, throwing almost as many touchdown passes (four) as he did incompletions (five). And yet their matchup against the San Diego Chargers was in doubt until the final minute.
That dichotomy left the Packers something short of jubilant after a 45-38 victory at Qualcomm Stadium, one that elevated their record to 8-0 but exposed new concerns about their defense.
On the one hand, the Packers were thrilled to have handed Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers the first three-interception game of his career. And most everyone was out of superlatives for quarterback Aaron Rodgers. (All except nose tackle B.J. Raji, who said: "I don't want to say anything crazy. I just think if he keeps doing what he's doing, he'll be the one they'll be talking about as long as this game is around.")
And if the Packers fall short of their Super Bowl hopes this season? I imagine we'll be talking about their pass defense as a primary cause. Most players were cautious in their assessment of Sunday's game. But perhaps the most important one, cornerback Charles Woodson, bluntly laid it out after Rivers rolled for 164 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to make this game closer than it should have been.
Speaking steadily and with a steel gaze in his eyes, Woodson said the Packers played "a lot of bad football" Sunday. He termed the defense "the liability on this team" and said the Packers must get linebacker Clay Matthews in better position "to be the Claymaker."
Most important, Woodson acknowledged the Packers can't expect elite play from Rodgers to carry them every week from now until Super Bowl XLVI.
"We can't ask our offense to do anything more than what they’ve done," Woodson said. "For those guys to just go up and down the field and score points, I mean, we have to understand that it's not going to always be that way. There's going to be some time when we're going to have to come up bigger than the offense. That's just the reality. We're very fortunate to have the guys we have on the offensive side of the ball. But we have to carry our weight as well."
Although he passed for a season-low 247 yards, Rodgers scrambled for 51 yards and finished with his highest passer rating (145.8) of the year. In the Packers' perfect eight-game start, Rodgers has completed 72.5 percent of his passes, thrown 24 touchdowns, limited himself to three interceptions and produced a passer rating of at least 110 in each game, an NFL record.
For his part, Rodgers said that "I'd like to think I can keep it up" in the second half of the season. And tight end Jermichael Finley expressed confidence that the offense can continue its elite play. "It doesn't matter what [the defense] does," Finley said. "That's a long story short."
At the same time, I trust and heed what Woodson says. He is not prone to post-game outbursts, and if he publicly identifies a point of concern, I take it seriously. Two years ago, for example, he accurately noted the Packers' mistake in releasing safety Anthony Smith and smartly questioned the Packers' strategy of sitting back in coverage as Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre carved them up.
So we find ourselves at a bit of a crossroads in our regard for the Packers. They are without question the best team in the NFL midway through the season. But two years ago, we learned the danger of entering the playoffs with a shaky pass defense.
Should we be concerned about a defense that is allowing nearly 300 passing yards per game? Or, after eight victories, should we accept it as part of the Packers' winning formula? After all, the Packers have now gone six consecutive games with at least two interceptions. Sunday, safety Charlie Peprah and cornerback Tramon Williams accounted for a third of the Packers' scoring by returning their interceptions for touchdowns, and Peprah sealed the game on a second interception with 14 seconds remaining.
In all fairness, however, no team that returns two interceptions for scores, and has a quarterback dealing like Rodgers, should be sweating out a game in the final minute.
"We like to think that we have a lot of playmakers on our defense, especially in the back end," Woodson said. "We feel like if the ball is in the air, we'll come up with our fair share certainly. But how many times are you going to have two interceptions for a touchdown? … Yeah, today it played out big for us. But we have to be more sound as a defense throughout the whole game."
I don't want to rain on the Packers' parade based simply on Woodson's comments and on yardage totals. As we've noted several times this season, the Packers have limited opposing quarterbacks to one of the lowest passer ratings (79.3) in the NFL. Oftentimes, passer rating is more illustrative of total pass defense than yards allowed.
In fact, according to Raji, Packers coaches presented an even more obscure stat -- passer rating differential -- to players this week as an assurance of what they're doing well this season. The Packers have led the NFL all season in that statistic, which measures the difference between your quarterback's passer rating and that of opponents in your games. It's generally considered a key indicator of a team's success potential.
"It's a huge deal," Raji said. "I don't know how it will sit after today, but ultimately we are 8-0 with work to do. That sets the ceiling pretty high for our football team."
Yes, the Packers are undefeated and have room for demonstrable improvement. Atop that list, according to Woodson, is creating a better environment for Matthews, who had one quarterback hit Sunday and has only three sacks this season. Woodson's advice for defensive coordinator Dom Capers was direct.
"We have to find ways to get Clay to the quarterback, whatever that may be," Woodson said. "Draw some things up for him and let him do his thing. Because we can't continue to allow him to be stuck on a side and double teamed every time he gets upfield. I think for us, finding ways to get him to be the 'Claymaker' which he is, we have to find ways to get him to the quarterback."
Matthews spoke only generally about the situation, saying: "Not to take anything from this victory today, or the performance we had at the end, but we also gave up too many [yards] and it seems to be a constant theme that we need to address."
Getting Matthews more involved would take some pressure off Woodson and his mates in the defensive backfield. As it is now, Capers is blitzing more than he ever has in three seasons with the Packers, leaving defensive backs in less favorable positions. Sunday, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Capers blitzed on 54.2 percent of Rivers' dropbacks. Blitzes led to all three interceptions, and Rivers threw all four touchdowns when the Packers limited their rushes to four men.
The way Rodgers is playing, it's quite possible the Packers could run away with the Super Bowl regardless of how their defense plays. It's worked so far. Is it reasonable to expect elite play from their quarterback and multiple interceptions from their defense every week? We'll find out soon enough.